Museums, Guns in Museums, and Gun Museums

Ian McCollum has been producing “Forgotten Weapons” on YouTube for his now 2 million followers as long as I have owned guns. As with the other Jesus, “Gun Jesus” usually works in areas that go well beyond my comprehension.

His recent comments on museums, guns in museums, and gun museums were a little bit more up my alley, though. I enjoyed his thoughtful take on these issues in his brief original video, “It Belongs in a Museum! Or, ‘Ian Offends Curator'” (also embedded below), as well as his conversation with Danny Michael and Ashley Hlebinsky from the Cody Firearms Museum in a much longer video (also embedded below).

Following are some thoughts on the issue inspired by Ian McCollum, to whom I am thankful for the inspiration.

At one point in my scholarly journey through gun culture I had in mind a chapter on the public display of firearms in museums. Because public museum displays, like the advertising I have written about, are intentionally constructed, they can be analyzed thematically and for their narrative structure. For example, I thought to compare the (presumably different) stories of firearms as presented by the NRA’s National Firearms Museum and the Smithsonian Museums across the Potomac.

For his part, McCollum argues that museums historically were repositories of expert knowledge and locations for other experts to engage those accumulated bodies of knowledge. He adds that the rise of the World Wide Web has turned museums into 3D Wikipedia, places where the masses can go to get basic information about artifacts, but also places where those artifacts go to die from the perspective of an expert. (And sometimes literally die due to bias against guns.) For this reason, he suggests that keeping firearms in private collections can be advantageous.

As an avid museum-goer, I agree with — and also endorse — the idea of museums as places of learning for the masses. As a non-expert in historical firearms, I have learned a lot about the history of “pocket pistols” while visiting the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg and the Texas Rangers Museum in Waco.

Efforts to create attractive and immersive “experiences” for museum patrons can aid learning, as my experience at the “You Say You Want a Revolution” exhibition at the Montreal Musee des Beaux-Arts highlighted.

Uniform and firearm of Black Panthers. Photo by David Yamane

McCollum clearly enjoys firearms, but takes a very intellectual approach to understanding their history and technology (which I, of course, appreciate). Lost in this, however, is the emotional aspect of museum displays. This includes the sense of awe and wonder one feels taking in a remarkable work of art, like David Kucer’s miniature firearms. This seems to go beyond the museum display as 3D Wikipedia, and highlights the importance of broad public accessibility and exposure to art and artifacts.

Display of miniature firearms by David Kucer at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Pen in foreground to show scale. Photo by David Yamane

Last, I am not an historian of museums by any stretch, but it seems to me that museums have had public educational and ideological functions beyond the accumulation of expert knowledge for much longer than McCollum allows in highlighting the impact of the web on museums. Though, to be sure, the web raises the bar for what kind of experience people have.

According to a roundtable discussion about the public display of firearms and their history, published in the academic journal Technology and Culture and including Ashley Hlebinsky as Curator of the Cody Firearms Museum: “The first deliberate display of firearms for the visiting public in the UK was the creation of the Grand Storehouse, built in London in 1688 on the site of the present Waterloo Barracks (later destroyed by fire in 1841). In the United States, firearms were first put on display in 1840 at the U.S. Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., by the National Institute for the Promotion of Science (the precursor to the Smithsonian Institution).”

Hear more about these and many, many other issues in the YouTube video below with McCollum, Hlebinsky, and her replacement at Cody, Danny Michael.

One point made by Michael and Hlebinksy in their conversation with McCollum concerns academic and museum gatekeeper bias against firearms. Insofar as museums are hiring more people with academic training, this can be a double-whammy for gun collections, highlighting the benefit of a privately owned and sympathetically curated publicly displayed collection.

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One comment

  1. I’m a big fan Ian’s channle and watched his videos regularly until YouTube decideded mess in politics. I haven’t watched anything there is the last couply of months.

    As for gun museum I like the J.M. Davis gun museum in Claremore, Oklahoma. I wish it was closer. There are so many guns and things on display that you probably cant look at the properly in a single day.


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